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Food and Drink

Leaf season

Leaves and grasses preserve fresh cheeses and impart distinctive and delicious flavors

Wendy M. Levy owns the Brattleboro Cheese shop on Main Street, and she happens to be quite fond of leaves.

BRATTLEBORO—The world of cheese can be a very odd place, especially for someone who is just venturing out beyond the typical grocery store offerings.

For example, it’s strange enough to ponder the practice of wrapping a cheese in fabric (cheesecloth), instead of wax or plastic, during the cheese’s aging process, but consider this: some cheeses are wrapped in leaves and grass while they mature.

Yes, “foliage” is not just a season when tourists descend on our quaint New England towns. It’s also something used to make cheese.

When thinking about cheese, it’s important to realize cheese has been around for much longer than things like Price Chopper, eighteen-wheelers, windows with screens, and refrigeration.

When cheese was first developed, and for many centuries hence, it was made in rural areas with rustic environments. Windows had no screens to keep insects out. Whatever cheese the makers didn’t keep for themselves and their families had to go to market, which usually meant open-air bazaars in village squares.

Cheesemakers might not have gone to market every day. On days they did go, they sometimes had to travel many miles on the backs of animals or in animal-drawn carts.

For all of these reasons, softer, fresher cheeses needed packaging to keep flies from landing on them and from depositing their eggs in them. (Look up “Casu Marzu” for the consequences.) The packaging would keep dirt and dust off the cheeses while they awaited transport, were transported to market, and then while they were displayed at the market.

Paper wasn’t the expendable commodity it is today, so forget that. Cheesemakers didn’t have nifty plastic clamshell containers with perfectly perforated lids in which to store their cheeses, so that option was out. The cheeses were too young to develop any protective rind.

So, cheesemakers used what they had at their disposal: leaves.

* * *

Leaves make a perfect wrapping for cheese. They are everywhere, and they are free. When they are fresh, they are moist and pliable, thus making them easy to wrap around little round cheeses. Even as they dry out, the moisture from the cheese keeps them somewhat intact.

The leaves also create a microclimate, encouraging the growth of certain molds and bacteria while prohibiting others that would damage the cheeses. And, perhaps as a happy surprise, most leaves impart interesting and new flavors and aromas to the fresh, rindless cheeses, adding extra nuance.

Where did the practice of wrapping cheese in leaves originate? Sadly, that information has been lost. Or, perhaps the practice simply evolved concurrently in many different cheesemaking regions, especially those where fresh, small cheeses proliferated. (Some regions’ traditional cheeses tend to be small cheeses, and others’ are gigantic wheels, depending on a variety of factors.)

Today, the majority of the leaf-wrapped cheeses come from the Italian Piedmonts and France’s Dauphiné (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence), home to a great many small, fresh cheeses with either no rind or delicate rinds that offer little protection to the gentle paste beneath.

Some other European cheeses with firmer pastes are encased in leaves and twigs for protection and flavor. And, of course, newer cheeses made in the United States have taken on this practice as well.

If you are interested in expanding your cheese knowledge and want to try unique cheeses, leaf-wrapped cheeses are a good way to do so. They tend to be on the less-than-pungent side of the spectrum, and while they have interesting flavors, they aren’t generally considered strong.

* * *

The cheeses made by the Cora family are worth seeking out. Beginning in 2000, the Coras assumed the Piedmont tradition of making robiola (soft-ripened, mixed-milk, small format) cheeses.

Gianni Cora trained with local cheesemakers and taught the art to his wife, Paola, and their children, Lorena and Francesco. Cora cheeses can be found wrapped in a variety of leaves, such as fig, chestnut, cherry, walnut, vine, and savoy cabbage.

All Cora cheeses are unpasteurized, but are aged long enough (at least 60 days) to satisfy the United States Food and Drug Administration. That said, Cora cheeses are very difficult to find in this country, mainly because they are made in such small quantities and thus are expensive.

For a special occasion, though, they are absolutely worth the money, as they are gorgeous reminders of important foodways traditions.

There are other leaf-wrapped Italian cheeses that are easier to find in the United States, although they are also somewhat rare. These cheeses are also aged longer and come in larger formats, and they also provide an unusual culinary experience.

One comes from Treviso, in the Veneto province of Northern Italy. It is called Vento d’ Estate (“summer wind”), made by La Casearia, the cheesemaking facility owned by the Carpenedo family.

Legend has it that Antonio and Giuseppina Carpenedo were driving along a country road, stuck behind a hay wagon. The aroma was so wonderful that they stopped the driver and bought some hay from him to experiment with.

The couple aged their five-pound, pasteurized cows’ milk wheels in beds of that very hay, nestled inside oak barrels. The experiment paid off, and even though Vento d’ Estate has been around only since the late 1990s, it has become a rare cheese with an intense, cult-like following.

Upon unwrapping the cheese, the aroma of freshly-mown hay hits you like — well, like a summer wind. Its flavor is floral, fruity, hay-like, and lactic. And, because substantial bits of hay are stuck to the rind, it makes a gorgeous and unusual presentation.

Another large, Italian leaf-wrapped cheese to seek out is Pecorino Foglie di Noce. This three-pound wheel of Tuscan sheep cheese is aged for three to four months in a bed of walnut leaves, which impart gentle black walnut notes to the dry, smooth, earthy paste.

This beautiful cheese reminds us the best cheeses aren’t made in factories, as there’s no way a factory could produce something that looks this ancient and handmade.

* * *

There are quite a few notable French leaf-wrapped cheeses, most of them made of goats’ milk in the Dauphiné, Loire Valley, and Périgord regions.

Generally, the leaves in which the fresh goat cheeses are wrapped are macerated in some sort of alcoholic beverage, such as eau de vie or brandy, which helps maintain the growth of desirable molds while suppressing the growth of harmful ones. It also adds extra flavor.

While these cheeses are somewhat rare in the United States, they are possible to find. Some names to look out for are Banon (which comes in both goats’ and cows’ milk versions) and Chèvrefeuille (“goat in leaves”).

And keep an eye out for my favorite, Cabecou Feuille: fresh cheese dotted with black pepper, then wrapped in plum-brandy-soaked chestnut leaves. “Cabecou” translates to “goat” in an ancient, pre-French dialect, and “feuille” is French for “leaves.”

When Cabecou Feuille is young, it is rindless and soft, with the pepper enhancing the goat cheese’s white-pepper finish; the brandy-soaked leaves add an interesting astringency and distinct “boozy” notes. As it ages, the cheese firms up a little, a geotrichum (yeast) rind develops, and the flavors get a bit more pungent.

Other outliers are Brin d’Amour and its close cousin, Fleur du Maquis. Both are sheep’s-milk cheeses coated with a thick layer of indigenous flora, such as rosemary leaves, fennel seeds, juniper berries, and bird’s-eye chiles. This cheese is a fine example of terroir, or the flavors imparted to food by a certain place: Corsica, the island on which this cheese is made, is home to a great many sheep, and, being surrounded by the sea, its land is scrubby, dry, and aromatic, with low-lying plants that are used to cover the cheese.

* * *

There are other leaf-wrapped cheeses made on both sides of the pond. A few that come to mind are Valdéon, a Spanish blue wrapped in chestnut leaves; Rogue River Blue, Oregon’s highly seasonal blue, also wrapped in chestnut leaves; and Hoja Santa, a fresh goat cheese from Texas wrapped in hoja santa leaves, the latter of which are native to Veracruz and Oaxaca, two states in Mexico.

Serving these cheeses is simple, no matter if they are softer, more firm, are small discs, or cut from a larger wheel. They all want to be served at room temperature, so take them out of refrigeration at least a half hour before serving.

None of them needs any elaborate presentation. Simply set them out on a wooden cutting board, a slate platter, or an attractive plate.

For the small cheeses, unwrap the cheese, but leave the leaves! If you’re serving Vento d’Estate, Pecorino Foglie di Noce, or Brin d’Amour, leave the leaf-covered rind on the wedge of cheese so your guests can see it.

And you should note one other feature about the small, leaf-wrapped cheeses.

They are pocket-sized and have their own wrapper, so take one or two on a hike through the Vermont foliage and enjoy the influence of French or Italian foliage on your snack.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #228 (Wednesday, November 6, 2013). This story appeared on page C1.

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